Casting around for subjects to write on for this Books&Authors column, a Pakistani writer friend based in London suggested that I discuss an issue he often hears me ranting about: the institutionalisation of Islamophobia, and how this is explored and challenged in literary texts.
As my friend knows, Islamophobia has become an urgent topic for me, especially since reading Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton. This memoir is perhaps best summarised by Matthew Hart: “much like his career to date, the book is great until about halfway through.” However much one might wish to contest some of Rushdie’s assertions, there is no denying the literary and emotional power of the early sections describing the fatwa years. Yet, as Joseph Anton progresses it becomes increasingly pompous, celebrity-obsessed, and misogynist.
More interesting from my perspective, though, is the way in which Rushdie denies the existence of anti-Muslim hatred. He writes, “A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia,” and shortly afterwards he co-opts George Orwell’s 1984 to relegate the term to “the vocabulary of Humpty Dumpty Newspeak.” (It’s revealing that Rushdie should cite newspeak’s creators’ name for their torture chamber, The Ministry of Love, in support of his argument, but not Muslims’ experiences of the doublespeak of ‘extraordinary rendition,’ ‘shock and awe,’ and ‘detention’.)
But what is Islamophobia? Is it a species of loathing akin to homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism? Or is religion, as Rushdie argues, just an “idea” which should be robust enough to “withstand criticism”?
“Islamophobia” is a new, imperfect idiom still finding its place in mainstream discourse. First coined as the French “Islamophobe” in the early 20th century, it didn’t make its way into English until 1985 when Rushdie’s friend, the distinguished Palestinian Christian writer Edward Said, presciently pointed out “the connection between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”
Chris Allen describes the “first decade of Islamophobia” as truly beginning in the ’90s. In 1997 Britain’s Runnymede Trust published its foundational report, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, which led to the term entering public policy for the first time, and which sought to explain the word’s meaning by tabulating eight “closed” and “open” views of Islam.
For my money, though, the best definition comes from Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood, who describe Islamophobia as “anti-Muslim sentiment which simultaneously draws upon signs of race, culture and belonging in a way that is by no means reducible to hostility towards a religion alone.” Whereas Rushdie seeks to make a distinction between attacking ideas and attacking people, Meer and Modood dismantle this common argument that religion, unlike skin colour, gender, and sexuality, consists of private beliefs that one chooses and can equally abandon, suggesting that both religious and secularist beliefs actually tend to be rather fixed, context-specific, and inherited. It is not just ‘ideas’ that anti-Islam zealots are attacking, but people — and in the West these people often belong to vulnerable and impoverished minorities.
Having defined Islamophobia, it next behoves us to ask: does this racially- and culturally-constructed anti-Muslim feeling actually exist?
Two internet storms from the last month indicate that Islamophobia is real and aggressive. Writing in The New York Times about Mohamed Morsi’s fall, David Brooks suggested that undifferentiated Islamists are embroiled in a “culture of death,” concluding, in high Orientalist style, “It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.” On Twitter, American author Joyce Carol Oates mused “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic — Egypt — natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?.” Oates later half-apologised for the comment, but first the Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami riposted, “Sexual assaults and rape are epidemic in the US military. What is the predominant religion there?.” No wonder researchers Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley describe Islamophobia and related subjects as a “toxic gift that keeps on giving.”
In the UK there has been a spike in the number of hate attacks against Muslims since the horrific murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich this May. Yet, when a small group of EDL supporters recently protested in Rigby’s name outside a York Mosque, in my picturesque (and quite monocultural) city of work, the mosque members welcomed the bigots with tea and biscuits, provisions with quintessentially British (and Pakistani) cultural resonances.
This incident, which The Guardian called an attempt to “open a dialogue,” demonstrates that many Muslims, far from cultivating a ‘victim mentality’ — a charge often levelled at them by the anti-Islamophobia brigade — in fact deploy reason, humour, and toleration to combat hatred.
How does anti-Muslim sentiment make its way into writing by authors from Muslim Pakistani backgrounds? One of the earliest and most consistent writers to explore the issue is Aamer Hussein, whose short story about the First Gulf War, “Your Children,” was published soon after the 1990 invasion. Along with another story, “The Book of Maryam,” which recalls the tense London atmosphere just before the Second Gulf War, it evokes the ethical and political concerns raised for Muslims by US-led raids. As a character in “Your Children” remarks, the Gulf War “isn’t a Muslim war.”
Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie almost casually mention Islamophobia experienced in post-9/11 America. Mueenuddin’s elite Pakistani émigrés in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders are described as daily apologising for the crime of 9/11, despite their great distance from Al Qaeda’s politics. In Shamsie’s Broken Verses, a character accounts for his return from New York to Karachi with a familiar litany: “the INS. Guantanamo Bay. The unrandom random security checks.” In Burnt Shadows, another character says:
“Everyone just wants to tell you what they know about Islam, how they know so much more than you do, what do you know, you’ve just been a Muslim your whole life?.”
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid explores Islamophobia through the Pakistani character Changez, who is aware of countrymen being beaten and arrested in post-9/11 New York, and is himself ostracised for adopting the potent visual symbol of a beard, eventually compelling him too to return to Pakistan. H.M. Naqvi’s novel Home Boy similarly recounts the story of well-integrated Pakistani-Americans, Shehzad (“Chuck”) and his two friends, who are arrested on terrorism charges in the fearful and frightful post-9/11 climate. Twenty-first-century Islamophobia in Britain is scrutinised in Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You. The novel shows religion moving to centre-stage in London just after 7/7 when Ajita, a previously secular character, tries to reorient herself by sporting a burqa. More convincing are Kureishi’s depiction of London as “one of the great Muslim cities” and his exploration of a Britain where Muslims’ “fortunes and fears rose and fell according to the daily news,” and “Mussie” and “ham-head” are new insults.
This fascinating body of writing suggests that the pen is among the best weapons minority Muslims have with which to fight racially-inflected religious hatred. Like Scheherazade telling stories to stave off violence, these Pakistani writers dispute common stereotypes of Muslims and distract from the dominant narrative with wit, passion, and empathy. Their voices add gradation to the ‘not-for-prophet’ New Atheist movement’s hollering. Rushdie might do well to study some of these novels, so that he can learn what Islamophobia is from those qualified to define it from experience as well as theory.